The re-use of stone and other materials from older buildings in more recent times is common throughout the past. In the archaeology of the Classical world and the early Christian sites of the eastern Mediterranean, the physical objects being re-used are known as spolia. Archaeologists debate the significance of this practice, where it is said to be either ideological or pragmatic. On the Cycladic islands of Paros and Ios there are both striking and subtle examples.

Spolia in the Medieval town of Parikia, Paros.

An older column in a more recent arch, Parikia.

On entering the Medieval part of Parikia, Kostas Roussos, a local archaeologist who very kindly showed me some of the highlights of the archaeology on Paros, pointed out the first example of spolia we encountered. While trying to get a good photograph of the simple, older column re-used in the arch of a younger building, Kostas said I would see many more and better examples. And many more we did see. In fact, once you know what you are looking for they are everywhere in the older parts of these island settlements. But turning the corner from one narrow alley into another there was one of the most spectacular examples of ‘spoliation’ I have ever seen.

Spolia on Paros

The Venetian Castle in Parikia is largely made up of spolia.

Remains of the Venetian Castle in Parikia.

The Venetian Castle in Parikia was built when the Venetians occupied the island, remaining there for about two centuries. Remains of Venetian castle forts can also be seen in Naoussa and on St Antonios Hill just outside of Marpissa. Unlike the castles in Naoussa and Marpissa, the castle in Parikia is largely made up of older marble fragments. As is so clearly seen in these photographs of the outer walls, a variety of elements from a number of different buildings were used.

Parikia's Venetian Castle is almost entirely made up of spolia.

A variety of ancient elements in the Venetian Castle.

Spolia on Ios

Not all examples of the re-use of older materials on more recent buildings are as obvious as the Venetian Castle in Parikia. Some are very much more subtle. And one of these more subtle instances can be seen on a small church that I was quite taken by just at one of the entrances to the old town of Chora on Ios.

A small church at the entrance to the old town of Chora, Ios.

A more subtle use of spolia on Ios.

Upside down Ionic Capitol.

Upside down Ionic Capitol.

A number of marble fragments from ancient buildings have been incorporated into this relatively small church. The lintel on the door, the lintel and frames of the windows, and out of view in the photograph above are columns that are used in the dome. But perhaps the most interesting piece is the upside down Ionic capitol on the corner of the building just below the dome.

Plaster was applied to the exterior walls of the church in such a way that the ancient Ionic capitol remains exposed and visible. It could so easily have been covered to give the wall a ‘cleaner’ finish.

A Single Significance?

Looking at the Venetian Castle in Parikia it seems inescapable that the use of ancient elements was entirely practical. The builders of the castle gathered up what was available to construct a defensive structure without delay. Why waste time producing new dressed stone for the walls, when there is a good supply of materials already ready to use laying around.

Locals in Chora believe the reason for the visible re-use of an ancient fragment in the younger church was to remind people that the church stands on the site of a older sacred space. Archaeological excavations and surveys could verify this, but the perception exists nonetheless, indicating that in some instances at least the use of spoil is not pragmatic but more ideological.

Even in situations where the re-use of ancient was practical in that it was easier to just use what was readily available, an ideological element does not need to be ruled out. The very ‘in your face’ use of older stone by the Venetian builders in Parikia would almost surely have served as a very striking reminder of the Venetian occupiers of the island. The castle was a constant visual reminder of who were the new rulers on Paros.

Just some of the archaeological delights to be seen on the islands of Ios and Paros.